Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category

Saturday Linkorama

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980′s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.
  • The Hormone Vote

    Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

    CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:

    While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.

    You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.

    Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.

    Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.

    This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.

    First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.

    (*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)

    Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:

    Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.

    “I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.

    It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.

    Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.

    Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.

    The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?

    Zero.

    Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?

    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Toys. In. Spaaaaace.

    Thursday, September 27th, 2012

    I love this:

    The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.

    Changing Opinion

    Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

    While I find this study, in which people are fooled into arguing against previously-held opinions, interesting, I think many bloggers/tweeters are missing the critical point. On almost all issues, people are of two minds. It is rare that someone encounters an issue where they can not see the other side at all (we call those people “fanatics”). Even people who have a very strong opinion can usually see where the other side is coming from. And, on many issues, we’re kind of on the fence.

    The gripping hand is that, unless someone is really passionate about an issue, they haven’t really thought through their arguments very well. They’ve mostly reacted, usually by agreeing with whomever they perceive to be their “side”. And when they do think about the issue, they tend to argue toward whatever side they have already picked.

    As I say so often: human being are OK at thinking; but we’re dead awesome at rationalizing.

    What the exercise does is not shift their moral compass. What it forces them to do is what we used to do in debate club and what I still try to do while writing blog posts: try to argue the other side. By trying to think of the arguments the opposition might raise, you strengthen your own arguments. And sometimes, you realize that the other side was right to begin with.

    So, no, the results are not terribly surprising. But they are interesting.

    New Year Linkorama

    Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Why Science?

    Friday, September 14th, 2012

    As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

    But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

    It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

    Labor Day Linkorama

    Monday, September 3rd, 2012
  • The latest population panic. You would think that having been wrong over and over and over and over and over again for the last five decades would teach these guys some humility. You would think wrong.
  • Five other sports cheats.
  • Thanks Cracked. Thanks a ton. Now that you’ve brought this year old story to my attention, I have something in my eye.
  • See this is why I get nervous about digital content. You don’t own digital content. You only borrow it.
  • Friday Linkorama

    Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

    Long-form

  • I encountered this problem with my own child. Some pediatricians are simply obsessed with child growth charts, even to the point of stupidity. We had one pediatrician — who we quickly dumped — freak out because Abby was supposedly way too short for age. It turned out they’d put her height in as centimeters instead of inches. It was simply bizarre watching this medical professional insist that our daughter, one of the tallest in her class, was dangerously short. We quickly switched to one who uses the charts for reference but is not defined by them.
  • The most telling part of this story, about Iran banning women from certain college majors, is the note that Iranian women were massively outperforming their male counterparts. Can’t have that, can we?! Looks like the Islamists are figuring out what the Communists did: when you educate a person, they are halfway to freedom.
  • I’m of two minds about peoples who have not contacted civilization. On the one hand, I don’t like forcing civilization on people. On the other, there seems a bit of condescension in the “don’t disturb their culture” mentality.
  • This article, in which Megan McArdle argues that we like to be conned, seems dead accurate to me. Gregg Easterbrook has made the same argument. Bubbles don’t happen because people are stupid. Bubbles happen because people are greedy. They know, deep down, it’s an illusion; but they keep hoping the roof won’t cave in on them.
  • Cats the Killers

    Friday, August 17th, 2012

    I’ll pop up from vacation just to headdesk over people’s discomfort over the recent revelation that cats kill a lot of little creatures.

    Um, they’re cats. Cats are predators. They have an instinct to kill. That instinct is impossible to surpress and shouldn’t be suppressed. Even the most domesticated cat can never be sure that their next meal is going to show up. Killing prey, even if they abandon it, keeps their skills sharp in case they ever need them. If they didn’t have this instinct, they would have gone extinct millions of years ago.

    As I said on Twitter, if you want a small furry critter without a killer instinct, get a hamster.

    You’re Watching it Wrong

    Friday, August 10th, 2012

    I have to agree with this article on how people are using their televisions wrong. It’s distressing to think that a generation of Americans may grow up not knowing how movies are supposed to look. Oh, well, I guess they’re already growing up not knowing how an action scene is supposed to be filmed.

    Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, August 5th, 2012

    I’m doing more long-form posting of links I care to comment on. But here’s a few I don’t have time for.

  • Man, do I love time lapse video
  • .

  • I haven’t found a good handle on the contention that Mitt Romney’s CEO background is actually a minus. I really think the CEO thing is irrelevant. What concerns me more is his lading up his staff with former Bush people.
  • I’m a little dubious of the contention that trash correlates with economic health. The graph smacks to me of a manipulated stat (it measure the derivative not the absolute). And our push on durability and recycling could confused it. Really, it looks, to me, more like you have one big correlated dip in both stats that’s driving the supposed correlation. The collapse of 2008 was unique. I’m not sure it’s a trend.
  • One Way Ticket

    Thursday, July 26th, 2012

    I’ve actually thought for some time that the only way to colonize Mars would be to send people there on a one-way trip. Of course, you have to face the brutal reality that those who go are very likely to die in the attempt. Mars is not where we evolved and its environment is almost certain to have unknown hazards. But the back-and-forth business is simply not going to work.

    In the end, I think Heinlein was right: space will be colonized by people we decide we’d rather dump off on another planet and let survive on their own. That’s how the Western World colonized the Americas and Australia. You combine some eccentric billionaires and an opportunity to get rid of political/racial/religious undesirables and we’ll spread through the Solar System in no time.